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File under “Questions that Need Answers.”

By Betsy Cribb
Updated January 15, 2020
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If you’ve ever had to polish your grandmother’s silver before a family holiday or shine up a favorite piece of your mama’s jewelry, you already know the answer to this question: Yes, sterling silver does tarnish. That’s the short answer. But the reason why polishing tarnished silver is forever on your to-do list requires a slightly longer explanation.

Pure silver, like pure gold, does not rust or tarnish. But pure silver is also incredibly soft, so it cannot be used to make jewelry, utensils, or serving pieces. Instead, metalworkers create an alloy, combining pure silver and a small amount of copper, to produce a metal that is stronger and more durable than silver on its own. This alloy, made with 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals (typically copper), is called sterling silver.

While the addition of copper to the silver is what makes it more durable, copper is also what makes sterling silver more susceptible to tarnishing over time, as it reacts to environmental factors in the air. Slow down the tarnishing process by choosing high-purity sterling silver that is marked “925” (the standard used to indicate the weight of pure silver in the alloy) and treating your pieces well.

While water won’t ruin your sterling silver, it may speed up the tarnishing process, so it’s best to take jewelry off before you shower, wash your hands, or do the dishes. Chemicals, whether in your perfume or sweat, can also make your silver tarnish more quickly, so consider putting your jewelry on after you’ve spritzed your fragrance and removing it before you work out.

Finally, don’t assume that sterling silver isn’t valuable just because it’s a blend, rather than the pure stuff. Any gold that is less than 24-karats, for instance, is also an alloy (though the gold is usually mixed with copper, silver, and zinc, rather than just copper). Sterling silver is still a valuable metal to be treasured, and it’s what most people are referring to when they talk about silver jewelry or the “good silver “ that’s passed down from generation to generation.

So go ahead and leave “polishing the silver” on your to-do list. You—and your mama—will be glad you did.

WATCH: This Is How You Should Store Silverware to Prevent Tarnish

You know your sterling silver will tarnish over time, but that doesn't mean you can't slow down the process: All it takes is a piece of chalk.